Page 3 - Subjective Audio Analysis
As with all the audio products we review here at APH Networks, it takes quite a bit of experience and training of the ears before we can begin making a fair judgment. Even for the best of audiophiles, it can be hard to produce an exact and accurate evaluation of a product without a thoroughly familiar product to use as simultaneous reference. While I will not claim to be the reviewer of all reviewers for headphones, I can say quite a few other computer review sites have editors lacking in training for reviewing anything audio related. Give them anything and all you will get is some vague description of “awesome bass, amazing midrange, nice treble, no muffles, 10/10”. Do not get me wrong though; there are knowledgeable audio reviewers out there on respected online media outlets, but they are far and few. There are no true objective measurements for audio sound quality. As the reviewer, however, I will put the SteelSeries Arctis Pro + GameDAC through a series of subjective tests to try to come up with the most objective rating as possible. The tests were conducted with the Arctis Pro plugged directly into the GameDAC unit, which was then plugged into a USB port on our computer.
After over 50 hours of break-in time -- well above the typical required period -- we put the SteelSeries Arctis Pro + GameDAC to the tests. All tracks are uncompressed CDs, FLAC, or LAME encoded MP3s at 192kbps or higher. For music tests, I ran the GameDAC in the Hi-Res Audio mode, while I left it in gaming mode for video games. For gaming, I played Overwatch, Fortnite Battle Royale, and League of Legends. Shooter games are probably the most crucial games to test these headphones, as gameplay can heavily rely on hearing and interpreting information found sounds. The other games have aspects where audio is useful, but this is less of a factor.
Starting at the lower end, the bass from the SteelSeries Arctis Pro + GameDAC was quite good. With music pumping into my ears, the Arctis Pro produced a rounded bass without the feeling of bottoming out. There was an ample amount of the low-end thump with good characteristics. It felt smooth and filled. While characteristics of bass may not matter as much for video games, this frequency range is really important with helping users distinguish footsteps and movement noises of enemies. Overall, I am quite happy with this end.
At the midrange, the Arctis Pro had a bit of a recessed feel in these frequencies. Even so, it felt warm and wet, which is great in terms of audio. From the low-end of the middle, it followed the fullness of the bass, with a good moving feel heard in bass guitar riffs and low keyboards. Instruments occupying the middle region, such as pianos and guitars, sounded good, with the right amount of wooden resonance. A bit of dryness started creeping in to the vocals, with them being more noticeable at the higher end. In gaming headsets, the midrange frequency is generally a bit pulled back compared to reference headsets. However, it is still important to hear this region clearly, as it will help in hearing voice lines in the game, or your own teammates screaming "LEEROY JENKINS" before doing something interesting.
Moving to the treble and higher, the Arctis Pro sounded decent. Instruments like violins and flutes were bright, but there were times things like high hat crashes felt a bit clashy with some detail lost at the upper end. Some of the dryness we heard in the vocals were only slightly noticeable. Trebles are important in games for more cues such as glass breaking or shots ricocheting off the side walls. Once again, these cues are just important to hear as they help you survive for longer times while getting a directional indication of your enemy's location. When everything was put together, the final result was a decent balance with a bright treble, supported by a sufficient midrange and foundation of bass. The overall characteristics was unsurprisingly a V-shaped sound, though you could use the built-in equalizer on the GameDAC to change this. While this may not make for the best reference sound, it definitely was more gaming-oriented.
When it comes to soundstaging, a truly important part of any gaming headset, the Arctis Pro + GameDAC provided an adequate solution. In terms of direction, the headset was very capable at distinguishing and providing a wide field of sound to make you feel like you are in a wider setting. It may not necessarily have the same depth as if it were open-back, but it was quite good. In terms of depth, I think there could still be some more work done to improve this area. I was able to distinguish between voices near and far, but it still did not feel as open as I would have liked. There was a relatively neutral image produced by the Arctis Pro. When I activated the DTS settings, the midrange was recessed even more so, but not to a point where it sounded unreal. I still noticed a loss of detail, but this is still among the better implementations of surround sound I have tried.
As for layering, I found the Arctis Pro to be good. All sounds were clearly heard with nothing being lost in the mix. Each layer had a distinct separation, which is a good sign. However, one thing that did need improvement was the cleanness of the layers. This affected the detail produced, as it would not be the clearest of outputs. Never did we lose any voices or instruments in our testing, as frequencies were still defined, but it did reduce the quality. Transitions between layers were good with smooth transitions throughout.
Moving to sound isolation, the fabric is quite comfortable, but they do not necessarily provide the best of seals compared to leather. Sound leakage was not present here and the headset still provided a good enough seal to block out external noises. I personally prefer the comfort and breathable nature of the fabric over a sealed leather, but this is a subjective thing. Microphone performance of the SteelSeries Arctis Pro was acceptable. With the cutout of frequency response nearer to the bottom end, a slight compressed sound was picked up. This microphone is certified by Discord and it should work perfectly for voice chats in gaming sessions. However, I would not necessarily recommend streaming with this headset.
As for the GameDAC, I was really pleasantly surprised at how useful it was in day-to-day use. When comparing between the Hi-Res output and the PC mode, it was not the biggest of differences. When I carefully listened for the changes, I felt like there was a bit more detail, especially in the trebles. I should note that most games only package 48kHz 16-bit sounds into the game, due to its smaller file size, but the difference in music was present. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the ChatMix options, as it allowed me to balance between voice chats with my friend and my current game. This quick setting was easy to change. I also really liked the unit as it was easy to navigate and easy to use. The OLED screen also was easy to see in both dark and bright environments. The unit did get a bit warm in operation, but this is nothing to be concerned about. One small annoyance I found was the fact the GameDAC always forced the volume of the output to 100% in Windows. I would have liked to see the volume on the unit be reflected in the operating system as well, as it rendered any keyboard shortcuts for volume moot.
1. Introduction, Packaging, Specifications
2. Physical Look - Hardware and Software
3. Subjective Audio Analysis